Published on Sunday, June 3, 2001 in the Boston Globe
Big Oil and an Activist's Death
Family sues to probe role played by Shell in Nigerian's execution
by Elizabeth Neuffer
NEW YORK - Just who is to blame for the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa?
No one disputes that the Nigerian author and environmental activist, who rallied thousands in a signal protest against Western oil companies, was dragged from his home by armed men in the darkness of an African night.
No one questions that a tribunal appointed by Nigeria's dictator, General Sani Abacha, found Saro-Wiwa guilty of murder in a sham trial. No one questions that on Nov. 12, 1995, an executioner hanged him - transforming a man into a martyr.
What Saro-Wiwa's family wants confirmed is this: the allegation that the largest oil company in Nigeria, Royal Dutch Petroleum/Shell, conspired with Abacha's regime in Saro-Wiwa's death, desperate to silence the man who had brought its lucrative oil operations to a halt.
A recent US Supreme Court decision should let answers to that question emerge, allowing a long-stalled civil lawsuit brought by Saro-Wiwa's family against the oil giant to proceed in US District Court in Manhattan.
''Shell officials can't distance themselves from the bloody deeds done for their benefit,'' said Judith Chomsky of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal group based in New York, which brought the case. Among the allegations are that Shell paid and armed a security force that killed protesters and that the company bribed witnesses to finger Saro-Wiwa with murder.
''I can assure you that no one in Shell wanted Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellow accused executed by the Nigerian government,'' said Alan Detheridge, a Shell vice president based in London.
Detheridge described the suit's allegations against the oil conglomerate as ''entirely without substance.''
Looking at multinationals
The case arises at a time of heightened awareness about the behavior of global corporations in Third World countries. Saro-Wiwa's protest movement is often hailed as an inspiration for the antiglobalization movement.
The case is a test of the reach of American courts. No American jurisdiction has awarded damages for a corporation's participation in human rights abuses overseas.
The suit is also a mission for Saro-Wiwa's family, notably his son, Ken Wiwa, a 32-year-old author, and his brother, Owens Saro-Wiwa, a 44-year-old doctor, who live in Toronto. They want to clear Saro-Wiwa's name, learn the truth, and allow the family and their nation - now a struggling democracy - to move forward.
''What we want to know - as do a lot of people in Nigeria - is just what was Shell's role?'' asked Ken Wiwa, eyes flashing behind black-framed glasses. ''We need to know. As Desmond Tutu says, there can be no future without forgiveness.''
Poverty in an oil-rich land
Along Nigeria's coast stretches one of the world's largest wetlands, a mangrove-studded swampland rich in fish and wildlife, trees and lush flowers, and, most of all, oil.
From this delta comes nearly all of Nigeria's oil. So rich are the oil fields that they account for 90 percent of the country's foreign exchange earnings.
Although plagued by corruption, poverty, and religious and ethnic conflict, Nigeria is considered the country with the greatest economic promise in sub-Saharan Africa. Oil has made some Nigerians rich as kings. But those who live in the oil-rich swampland have remained poor as beggars. Among these are the Ogoni, Ken Saro-Wiwa's tribe.
Thousands of miles of oil pipelines weave through the Ogoni's mud-hut villages and crisscross their lands. But electricity is scarce, paved roads few, and there is a shortage of schools and health clinics. Gas escaping from oil facilities chokes the air. Frequent oil spills have tainted the land and water, killing crops and animals, hurting the livelihood of farmers.
''I saw the impact of environmental problems on people,'' said Owens Saro-Wiwa, recalling his patients. ''Asthmatic attacks, bronchitis, conjunctivitis, skin diseases.''
By 1990, the Ogoni people's anger had coalesced into a protest movement. Ken Saro-Wiwa was the galvanizing force behind it.
Friends and relatives recall the author, columnist, and critic as charming and erudite, a man given to quoting Shakespeare but who also penned the country's most popular television sitcom, ''Basi and Company,'' which pokes fun at Nigerians' endless schemes to get ahead. His critics, including those among the Ogoni, saw him as ambitious and ruthless.
Straight to a cause
Whether people revered or disliked him, few disagree he was single-minded about his cause. ''He was blunt and straightforward,'' recalls Sam Adami, a lawyer who represented Saro-Wiwa at his trial, now at Harvard Law School's Center for Human Rights. ''Just as he was energetic and full of ideas.''
Saro-Wiwa rallied the Ogoni onto the streets, where they called for a share of the revenues from the oil taken from their land. They demanded more control over their affairs, and wanted oil spills cleaned up.
Their protests were nonviolent, but local police clashed with them nonetheless. In 1990, Shell, fearing for its staff, asked the Nigerian government to send its mobile police force to the region, according to company correspondence cited by Human Rights Watch. The force - so brutal that Nigerians had dubbed it ''kill and go'' - launched a crackdown against the Ogoni. In one attack 80 villagers were killed and 495 houses destroyed, according to a government inquiry that concluded the police acted recklessly.
Still, the protest movement spread. On Jan. 4, 1993, tens of thousands of Ogonis took to the streets, giving Shell a month to pay them compensation or leave.
''Saro-Wiwa was clearly a major thorn in their side,'' said Walter Carrington, the former US ambassador to Nigeria, now at Harvard University's Du Bois Institute for African-American studies.
Did Shell strike back?
Vigilante groups bent on destroying Shell's facilities emerged. Saro-Wiwa discouraged them, his family says, but some Ogoni leaders broke with him, arguing that he had become too militant.
Shell, forced to quit its operations in the Ogoni region because of the unrest, issued a press release in 1993 accusing Saro-Wiwa of leading a secessionist movement. The Nigerian military, now under Abacha's rule, escalated its attacks - doing so, according to the lawsuit, with Shell's assistance.
The suit alleges that the Nigerian military used Shell boats to launch attacks on villages and Shell helicopters to conduct reconnaissance in areas it later attacked.
It charges that Shell paid ''field allowances'' to military police in at least one deadly 1993 attack, and that a Shell managing director had promised to pay for setting up and maintaining a 550-man police squad.
And the case accuses Major Paul Okuntimo, the head of the local military unit that attacked, raped, and killed Ogoni villagers in 1994, of demanding money from Shell, stating in one dispatch: ''Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken.''
Shell officials, citing the pending lawsuit, declined comment on these and other allegations. Ogoni officials testified before a national reconciliation commission this year that they could prove Shell had imported weapons in 1993 and 1994 that were used by security forces in the Ogoni crackdown. Shell has confirmed only that it purchased 107 Ber etta pistols in the 1980s for police officers assigned to the company. Human rights groups point to lawsuits filed by arms dealers against Shell for nonpayment as evidence of other weapons deals.
In May 1994, Saro-Wiwa's campaign was at its height when a mob killed four Ogoni leaders who had openly split with the activist. Saro-Wiwa was charged with inciting their murder.
So biased was his trial that defense lawyers quit in protest. Independent observers seemed equally appalled. ''The judgment of the tribunal is not merely wrong, illogical, or perverse,'' a British jurist, Michael Birnbaum, said in a report. ''It is downright dishonest.''
Among evidence the judges refused to consider were affidavits filed by two prosecution witnesses stating that Shell had bribed them into implicating Saro-Wiwa. ''I was promised that after the case in court I will be given a house any place in the country, a contract from Shell ...'' reads the affidavit by Charles Suani Danwi, a copy of which was reviewed by the Globe. Danwi, who had split with Saro-Wiwa, volunteered his statement after a crisis of conscience, according to attorney Adami.
That was not the only time that the oil company intervened in the case, Owens Saro-Wiwa says. Desperate to save his brother, he met with Shell's managing director, Brian Anderson. He alleges that Anderson had offered to trade Saro-Wiwa's freedom for an end to the protest campaign.
''He said it was difficult to get Ken out,'' Owens said, ''but not impossible.'' Anderson, also charged in the lawsuit, has retired from Shell and could not be reached for comment. His lawyer did not return phone calls.
As Saro-Wiwa's execution drew near, President Bill Clinton, South African leader Nelson Mandela, and other world leaders called for clemency. So did Shell: the chairman of Royal Dutch Petroleum/Shell's committee of managing directors sent a letter to the government.
''We did what we could to prevent that execution from happening,'' Detheridge said.
Critics say Shell, a company whose oil operations all but dictated the Nigerian economy, could have done far more. ''Of all the oil companies,'' said Carrington, who lobbied to save Saro-Wiwa, ''Shell had the closest relationship with the military government.''
Saro-Wiwa and eight others were hanged in November 1995. A month later, Shell signed an agreement with the Nigerian government to invest $4 billion in a natural gas project.
200-year-old law tested
The suit against Shell is being brought under the Alien Torts Claims Act, an 18th-century antipiracy statute increasingly used in human rights suits. It allows American courts to consider cases brought by non-Americans for wrongs committed elsewhere in violation of international law. Last year, Bosnian Muslims successfully sued Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic under the law, although the damages have not been paid.
Shell's lawyers argue the law is not relevant. In motions to dismiss the case, they say a private corporation cannot be held responsible for human rights violations committed by a foreign government.
Chomsky of the Center for Constitutional Rights disagrees. ''The real power lies with large multinationals, on whom developing countries are dependent,'' she said. ''Corporations are liable because they have the power not to be complicit in human rights violations.''
In recent years, Shell has reached out to the Ogoni and other tribes, building schools and hospitals and committing itself to environmental protection and human rights.
When the suit - already five years old - will proceed to trial remains unclear. A decision is expected this summer on final motions to dismiss.
''I hope to see this finish in my lifetime,'' Owens Saro-Wiwa said. ''I want to see Ken's name cleared.''
Ken Wiwa says he believes the case is important not just for his father, but for his country's future with Shell. Until the truth is known, he says, Nigerians will suspect the worst of the oil company - as his father did.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company